When Ronald McDonald appeared in a new TV ad in June, outfitted in a sporty version of his trademark yellow suit, snowboarding and skateboarding, even juggling fruit, the popular icon for the fast-food giant seemed to be having something of an identity crisis.
There were no French fries and no sign of the Hamburglar or Mayor McCheese. Suddenly, the clown-faced character who once thrived in the land of milkshake volcanoes and apple pie trees was being described by company marketing executives as "an ambassador for a balanced, active lifestyle" and "a powerful force for good."
This makeover, McDonald's officials say, is just the beginning. Nearly every aspect of the company's new marketing strategy centers on health.
The home of the Big Mac now claims to be America's No. 1 distributor of apples, thanks to its new Apple Dippers, slices served with caramel sauce, and a new Fruit & Walnut salad -- a bowl of apples, grapes and yogurt advertised in Vogue magazine with illustrations of lithe young women. There's a new line of "premium" salads (17 types of lettuce!) and chicken sandwiches. Customers can now substitute bottled water and apple slices for soft drinks and fries or skip the bun and get a lettuce-wrapped burger.
McDonald's also has hired as consultants Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer Bob Greene and best-selling author and nutritionist Dr. Dean Ornish of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito to help design fitness programs and promote good eating habits. A new line of McDonald's skateboards and bikes is in the works, and there's a new "Bag a McMeal" website (http://app.mcdonalds.com/bagamcmeal) that calculates the nutritional value of any McDonald's meal.
"Stay tuned," says Bridget Coffing, a McDonald's spokeswoman. "There's more to come."
McDonald's campaign signals a major shift in marketing that, if successful, could help redefine fast food. If this global behemoth can effectively sell consumers on its healthier menu, competing chains such as Burger King and Carl's Jr. will likely follow. Just last weekend, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services held a two-day forum to look at childhood obesity and the effect of fast-food marketing on kids.
The real challenge is to convince the public that McDonald's, which a half-century ago pioneered the quick-serve genre commonly derided as "junk food," is now the place to go for good nutrition.
So far, the 2-year-old campaign shows signs of success. McDonald's says it has boosted business by nearly 2 million customers a day since 2002 and that worldwide sales in restaurants open at least one year jumped 6.9% last year.
Ornish, a well-regarded researcher in heart disease prevention, brought credibility to the campaign when he publicly praised the company for promoting good health. Even one of McDonald's harshest critics, Bob McCannon, director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, a media activism group that trains elementary and high school educators, has granted the fast-food giant grudging praise, saying "there's some value to promoting activity."
McDonald's stops short of linking the campaign to America's obesity epidemic. And it has rejected the idea that it was influenced by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," which detailed the health problems he experienced after eating an all-McDonald's diet for 30 days.
In interviews, company spokespeople shied away from portraying the marketing campaign as a change in direction for the company. "The things that we're doing are nothing new," says Ken Barun, McDonald's senior vice president of social responsibility. "It's been about choice, variety and quality for us for a long time."
McDonald's has offered nutritional information and food exchange lists for diabetics and dieters since the 1970s and has sponsored sporting events for decades. Salads were introduced in 1986 and, in the 1990s, the company launched a nutritional campaign for kids and added a nutrition section to its website.
Still, some marketing analysts and nutrition experts are skeptical that enough McDonald's customers will order a salad when tempted by the smell of cheeseburgers and fries. They also question whether the company can be successful by, in effect, having it both ways -- keeping its burger-loving customers happy while hawking yogurt and salads.
"There are aspects of what they're doing that I think are very helpful, which I think will make it easier for Americans to eat well," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit health advocacy group and critic of the fast food industry. "Some other aspects of their efforts, I think, are really more about marketing than about promoting Americans' health and physical activity.''